By Braha Bender
What is the difference between animals and human beings? Animals eat. We eat. Animals care for their young. We kiss and cuddle our two-year-olds. Animals sleep. A lot. So do we. Especially teenagers. Some of them even like to mess with their hair.
Similarities to teenagers notwithstanding, the Torah explains that – surprise! – animals have souls. The animal soul is called the nefesh. We are not unique in our ability to assess a situation and make quick judgement calls, to yearn for the wellbeing of our offspring, or to feel emotions like pain, curiosity, and confusion. The Torah acknowledges this in the commandment not to cause hardship to animals. We may not cause an animal undue pain, because they indeed feel pain just as we do.
It’s a lot to have in common – mental capacities, emotional capacities, even some communication abilities. Dolphins talk. Even birds squawking like a racket in the middle of Manhattan somehow manage to get their message across. That is, to other birds. Remember Koko? Koko is a gorilla living in Maui who speaks American Sign Language.
But Torah explains that the most definitive difference between human beings and animals is that human beings can have consciously present relationships. We are called the medaber, the creature who forms meaningful relationships through speech. A relationship requires being aware of another and responding to them. Animals respond to nothing but their own internal programming.
What makes the human soul unique is that, beyond just the experiential nefesh, the human soul includes other element such as the ruach, the neshama, and even higher levels of spirituality. It’s not just a computer running the “human” program. When you tap on the window, there is someone behind the glass.
Animals do not have free choice because all of their experiences are automatic. They feel, think, and communicate instinctively. They are incapable of going against their own nature. An elephant trainer can train an elephant to behave in certain ways, but he cannot train him out of being an elephant. There is a level of temptation to which an animal will undoubtedly succumb, regardless of how well-trained he is.
Human beings can live like animals by thoughtlessly following their instincts. This might look fine on the outside. Socialised human animals may eat neatly, starched white napkin tucked beneath politely folded, manicured hands. Social animals may dress pleasantly, smile at friends on the street, and live in well-groomed houses.
But the moment that tells the difference between an animal and a human being is when behaving like an animal would be a great deal easier. When every nerve ending in your body screams go – “Go tell off that person who made you mad! Go eat that cheeseburger! Go share that juicy piece of funny, malicious gossip! Go commit adultery!” – that is the moment when the human being distinguishes himself from animals.
The Torah would take it one step further. The moment you decide to overcome powerful, thoughtless instinct is the moment you actually become a human being. Up until that point you are just a human being in potential.
Every nerve ending in your body says go, but you have a relationship with someone – whether that special someone is another person, God, or even yourself – and that relationship means more to you than even the greatest immediate gratification. When you care so much about someone that you are willing to overcome your own greatest physical desires for them, you have said a mouthful. It sounds like, “I love you.” In a way that no animal could ever express.